Rows of stalls packed with seasonable vegetables, delicious meats, cheeses, pastries and wine – French markets are a great way to sample the French lifestyle at its best.
Here’s a list of things to know to help you navigate them like an expert.
A hundred new markets are created in France every year
Approximately one hundred new markets are born every year in France with communities using them to revitalise city centres, according to a 2016 survey.
And while there was a period of time when consumers were being lured away by big supermarkets, the popularity of traditional markets is once again on the rise, especially for bio (organic) markets.
As of 2020, over half of French people (54 percent) reported that they remain loyal customers at their local markets.
There are lots (and lots) of them
As of 2021, there were over 10,700 food markets (both covered and uncovered) in France. So you are never really that far from one if you do your research.
One might assume that markets are more common in rural areas, but French cities tend to offer several markets across different districts and most neighbourhood will have at least one market day a week, often several.
You won’t get everything in one place
Of course, French markets are wonderful but they aren’t convenience stores where you can get it all in one go. And that is one of the reasons they’re so attractive, after all.
At most markets, especially the best ones, speciality food from the local area will be on sale so go with an open mind about what you’re having for dinner that night.
They’re also very seasonal – during summer you’ll find multiple stalls selling soft fruit while in the autumn it will be mushrooms as far as the eye can see – use this as a guide for your menu planning.
When to arrive
The stalls usually open from 8am-9am in the morning and if you’re driving, the earlier you arrive the more likely you are to get a good parking spot.
But as the morning wears on the market will get more lively so you might find you want to stick around for a few hours. You might notice that the market remains for many French people, especially those of an older generation, a time in the morning to socialise and catch up with their neighbours.
Most markets close from around lunchtime or the early afternoon, although opening times vary, but don’t rely on it being open in the afternoon.
Sunday is (sometimes) a day of rest…and Monday might be too
It’s not a hard and fast rule but food markets don’t always happen on a Sunday.
This was originally down to religious reasons but even as people go to church less and less, it has remained a tradition.
For others, Monday might be the day off so if you’re relying on markets to eat, it may be wise to stock up on enough food to last you from Saturday until Tuesday.
A French market isn’t really the setting for a good haggle, with prices already set.
And it’s a good idea to bring as many small notes and change as you can — paying with the right money will be appreciated (although plenty of stallholders will also accept cards).
Market halls vs. outdoor markets
There is a distinction between the markets that take place in covered halls and those that happen outside. While indoor markets are often open every weekday, outdoor markets usually happen two or three times a week, depending on the size of the village, town or city.
Follow the locals
Don’t be put off by a big crowd around a stall, this probably means the quality of the produce is top notch. Especially if the crowd is mostly made up of locals.
One of the reasons it can be hard to keep track of when and where the markets are taking place is that some will only happen at certain times of the year…which brings us on to our next point…
The most reliable source to get practical information about markets is still the town hall itself (or the town’s website).
That’s because it’s the mayor and the City Council who have jurisdiction over the organisation of the markets.
There are of course one-off markets as well such as Christmas markets or Easter events, as well as semi-regular organic market or arts and crafts markets. Again, these will probably be listed on the mairie website.
There are also regular sales of non-food items such as brocantes (vintage sales usually of furniture and household items) and vide-greniers (car boot sales or yard sales or second-hand items).
They can be difficult to navigate…even once you’ve arrived
French markets can be happen on a large scale so it’s usually a good idea to plan your route around them, if possible.
Look at how people are moving through them and see if it’s a case of navigating a series of small alleys or moving around public square. Either way, keep in mind the essentials you are looking to buy.
There are lots of good reasons to visit them
Choosing to shop at food markets in France rather than getting everything from a supermarket gives you the chance to eat fresh, seasonal produce, contribute to the local economy and learn a bit more about what you’re buying and where it comes from.
It’s also a way to take back control of what you eat because if you cook you’re own food from ingredients bought from a farmer down the road, you don’t have to worry about what else might have gone in there like you do with pre-prepared food.
And once you become a familiar face, it’s a chance to do your shopping with a bit of socialising thrown in.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
It’s not a good idea to touch the fruit and vegetables (just imagine if everyone was doing it!) but you are welcome to point to or tell them which ones you’d like.
Similarly, if you’re buying a rotisserie chicken, don’t be afraid to ask for some of the juices to to go with it or ask the fishmonger to clean and gut the fish for you.
Oh, and remember that most vendors will be more than happy to let you have a taste of the produce before you buy.
You will need to keep an eye on your place in the line as queuing isn’t observed as much in France as it is in other countries like the UK.
Make sure you know who was in front of you and make eye contact with the vendor to let them know that you’re there to buy.